The Disturbing Language and Shallow Logic of Ed Reform: Comments on “Relinquishment” & “Sector Agnosticism”

Two buzz phrases have been somewhat quietly floating around reformyland of late, for at least a year or so. I suspect that many have not even picked up on these buzz phrases/words.  They are somewhat inner circle concepts in reformyland. The first is the notion of the great relinquisher (a seemingly bizarre contradiction indeed… to be great at surrendering… but I believe that’s the point). The second is the idea that we all must learn to be sector agnostics. That is, we all must stand behind the provision of a system of great schools as logical replacement for existing school systems and that this system of great schools might be provided by any sector – public/government, charter, private non-profit, private for profit. After all, it doesn’t matter how we provide them, as long as they are great schools. Who can argue with that?

Linking these two conceptions, the great relinquishers – primarily public officials perceived as otherwise self-interested bureaucrats – must learn to relinquish their self-interested stronghold on publicly financed schooling to alternative providers.  Among inner circle reformers, these ideas are treated as somehow ground breaking, deep intellectual thoughts about re-envisioning schooling. But in reality, they are anything but.

On Relinquishers & Sector Agnosticism

Some abbreviated backdrop on the relinquisher notion.  I converse (constructively) on occasion via e-mail with Neerav Kingsland who promotes this particular notion. For those who don’t know Neerav, he’s a Yale Law grad who completed a Broad Residency, and is currently CEO for New Schools for New Orleans. Thus, as I interpret it, he derives his core arguments largely on his perception of the (highly debatable) successes of post-Katrina New Orleans.  That in mind, and with all due respect to Neerav, I have grave concerns about what he refers to as the movement toward “relinquishment” or creating a culture of “relinquishers” among current public officials regarding the provision of the public good of schooling (differing substantively from public schooling.)

Neerav introduced the concept of Relinquishers in a letter he wrote to urban (not all, just “urban”) superintendents in Education Week:

Before I begin in full, let me say this: Superintendents, over the years I’ve begun to believe that your identities–how each of you perceives your professional charge–are often misguided. In my experience, most of you view yourselves as system reformers–leaders who can make the current educational system much better. For the sake of the letter, let’s call you, well, Reformers. With great diligence, you fight to make our government-operated system better.

But let me suggest another identity–one whose charge is to return power, in a thoughtful manner, back to parents and educators. Let’s call these types of superintendents Relinquishers. With great diligence, these superintendents attempt to transfer power away from a centralized bureaucracy.

Both Reformers and Relinquishers possess noble aims, but only one group, I think, possesses a sound strategy.

Superintendents, in the rest of this letter I hope to convince you to become Relinquishers. Specifically, I will advocate that you return power to parents and educators through the creation of charter school districts, which are the most politically acceptable mechanisms for empowering educators. (my emphasis)

Let’s start by taking the word “relinquish” literally for a moment. A quick synonym search in Microsoft Word yields: Surrender, Abandon, Renounce, Resign

The implication here is that public officials must “surrender” or “abandon” or “renounce” their schools, handing them over largely to private managers of charter schools (note that Neerav Kingsland has suggested that charter operators are the “politically acceptable” choice, leaving for others including Smarick to consider conventional private schooling and voucher models). Yeah… I get that this is an interesting notion – to suggest that there is some nobility is declaring defeat and handing control over to those who might be able to play a positive role. I get that. But I find this use, and this framing rather disturbing.

This is not to suggest that I don’t believe that many local public school districts, large or small, need work (some, a hell of a lot of work) on how they interact with their local communities and how they balance stakeholder interests (responsiveness to parents/students, etc.). That’s an ongoing concern in any public or private sector business, with differing structural/governance issues involved in public governance. This is also not to suggest that public officials should never look to other sectors for appropriately contracted, sufficiently regulated support. But “relinquishment” is an extreme perversion of this notion, especially when we start considering relinquishment of the system as a whole – Surrendering, abandoning, renouncing any and all role for public governance and centralized public policy.

Now for this notion of “sector agnosticism” – In his book The Urban School System of the Future and in several tweets and blog posts, former deputy commissioner of Education of New Jersey, Andrew Smarick promotes the reformy religion of what he refers to as Sector Agnosticism. A brief explanation is provided in a recent education week post:

Smarick: “Second, we need to have a three-sector accountability system that treats similarly district public schools, charter public schools, and private schools; we must focus on school results, not school operator. I call this “sector agnosticism;” in other words, we shouldn’t care who runs a school as long as it is superb.”

In the 1990s, when this idea arguably first gained some momentum (summarized in Paul Hill’s book Reinventing Public Education), I was actually a pretty big fan of the idea – which consisted primarily of finding ways to employ private contractors through performance contracting to improve urban schools. Heck, my own first conference paper ever was on the issue of private management of public schools, at a time when I thought there might be great hope for such strategies. Unfortunately, the self-interest of the (publicly traded, for profit) private manager (who eventually fell into financial collapse) to extract as much revenue as possible from the urban district (Baltimore) coupled with their outright disinterest in, and obstruction of having their outcomes measured, started giving me doubts. How could they possible show an efficiency advantage (doing more with less) if they managed to game their budget allocations to their advantage and then wouldn’t provide evidence of results?

Unfortunately, I wrongly assumed things would get better as the industry evolved. Further, over time, as I completed graduate work studying education finance and policy and became reasonably well versed in school law and education governance (teaching it at the graduate level for over a decade & writing/publishing numerous co-authored articles in law review journals) I became more acutely aware of the potential pitfalls of taking an uniformed leap into sector agnosticism.

Defining superbitude?

First, let’s take Smarick’s sound bite notion that it should matter as long as the school is “superb.” Even with a narrow, test score or graduation & post-secondary matriculation-based measure of “superbitude,” neither charter nor private schools are revealing any decisive edge, holding student characteristics or access to resources constant. Rather, as one might logically expect, these less regulated sectors merely produce greater variation around largely the same mean (if comparing similar students). Across sectors, the drivers of outcome variation continue to be the substantive differences in student populations served and oft correlated variations in access to schooling and non-schooling resources (in public schools, charter schools or private schools).[1]

Why do those KIPP charter middle schools appear to perform so well? What about New York City or Newark charter schools more broadly? And what about years of findings on private schools, or students participating in the New York City private school voucher experiment? It’s not about sectors, but rather about strategies and resources. And if it’s about strategies and resources, then if we can identify what works and the resources needed to legitimately serve all children, we can provide those opportunities within a publicly governed, publicly accountable system of common schools. Indeed, if these measured outcomes were in fact the only issue of concern, we might leverage an appropriately mixed set of schooling providers to get the job done. In fact, the lack of decisive advantage by sector alone is equal justification for agnosticism as it is against it.

But, that’s only if we ignore entirely that there might actually be other tradeoffs involved, beyond whatever test score, graduation, matriculation or employment outcome might be achieved.

Trading Off Legal Rights for Test Scores?

It’s not just about figuring out how to achieve crudely measured “superberific” schooling.  Our children’s schooling exists in a broader social, political and legal context. Kids have legal rights, and under most state constitutions kids a right to access/participate in/gain the benefits of a system of schooling (sometimes, quite explicitly, a system of public schooling). In many states, they not only have a right to access schooling (at times, of some measured degree of quality), but a legal obligation to attend up to a specified age (compulsory schooling laws).

As I’ve discussed on a few previous blog posts, privately governed and/or managed charter schools, more like traditional private than like public schools, may not be (are likely not) subject to the full protection of students’ constitutional or statutory rights (summary table from previous post included below). When attending a private school, it’s clear that kids have no right to continued attendance. They can be expelled, excluded outright for any number of reasons (including admissions testing). They may be compelled to recite school oaths and may be obligated to participate in religious activities and may be restricted in their ability to freely express themselves and subject to disciplinary action including expulsion for failure to comply. Parents may also be obligated to participate in certain activities as a condition of continued enrollment.

While charter advocates love to declare their schools as necessarily “public,” with regard to at least some of these same issues/questions, Charter school legal defense attorneys are quick to argue that they are in fact, private. That, for example, children’s rights under disciplinary codes should be treated as private contracts entered into by parents, just as in private schools – and substantively different from “public” schools – or those formally governed and operated by agents of the state (local elected school boards and public district administrators).

Further, the public-private delineation and murky middle ground of charter schooling raises numerous additional substantive legal questions regarding public employment law and employee rights, taxpayer and citizen rights to open public meetings and public records, and rights, responsibilities, liabilities and protections of “public officials” such as school board members and public employees as opposed to governing boards of private citizens, and employees of private contractors.

Sector agnosticism, as dreadfully simplified by Andrew Smarick requires completely ignoring these substantive tradeoffs.  Trading off constitutional rights to reduce supply of some and increase access to other sectors is not benign, if those sectors could/might possibly yield other advantages.

The Distribution of Lost Rights

Nor do I suspect that the tradeoff of rights will ever be randomly distributed across children by the wealth and income of their families. No-one is asking the superintendent of Scarsdale (great guy, by the way) to Relinquish his schools and adopt a policy of Sector Agnosticism. This is a policy for the children of New Orleans, New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia and Newark.

In the extreme case – a case favored by Smarick and seemingly endorsed (through relinquishment) by Kingsland – a district – or now merely a geographic space – where children have only access to privately governed/managed charter schools may require that any/all that wish to actually exercise their state constitutional right to attend school, have to choose which rights to forgo in the process? Will 100% of parents in that zone be required to enter into contractual agreements (forgoing constitutional & statutory protections) with schools regarding disciplinary policies for their children?

In fact, Kingsland’s logic is that district superintendents should simply succumb or surrender to the forces that wish to forcibly close and takeover their schools, and relinquish those schools or at least the children who would have attended them, to other sectors. Following Smarick’s logic, parents and citizens at large should completely ignore tradeoffs of constitutional protections, or humiliating treatment of children, in lieu of Smarickian measures of “superbification.”

Creating a scenario where only low income minority children in America’s cities must tradeoff their constitutional and statutory protections to gain access to schooling (which they may be compelled to attend) is clearly unacceptable, inequitable treatment.  Before you go there… no… I’m not saying that the responsible policy solution is to make sure that suburban kids and their parents are equally deprived of protections.  What’s not good for some is not good for all.

One logical retort to my arguments here is that if parents want these choices, if they are backed up on waiting lists for existing charters, then we should provide to them. If the demand is there, let the supply meet the demand!? It would be one thing if it was made clear, up front, to potential choosers these hidden tradeoffs, but that’s not the case. If anything, charter advocates are doing their best to conceal that any such tradeoffs exist.

Indeed, appropriate cross-sector regulation might negate some of my concerns raised here, but these issues are too frequently ignored.

Market Manipulation & The Forcible Reduction of the “Public Option”

Worse, in the current policy context, we are not witnessing the emergence of a true, fair and equitable, demand driven and fully open and accessible (driven by open information) system of choice. Policies of relinquishment and sector agnosticism are being pursued in practice as policies of forced relinquishment (read mass closings) of traditional public schooling and sector favoring transfer of assets (public to privately governed charters), coupled with gross misrepresentations of information on sector quality.

In selected cases, we are also witnessing a coordinated effort to provide competitive advantage for non-district alternatives. Where sectors are set up to compete with one another to prove their worth, the likelihood that charter or voucher advocates will lobby for increased resources for district schools is about as likely as the New York Yankee ownership arguing for revenue sharing to help the Kansas City Royals, or Walmart to lobby for tax breaks for Target. Similarly, the likelihood that well endowed charters will share their philanthropy with others less fortunate is slim to none where the emphasis remains on flaunting one’s competitive advantage.

A veneer of demand (as measured by duplicative waiting lists) for private and charter sectors has been induced by forcible reduction of supply of urban schooling, and gross misrepresentations & mismeasures (New Jersey/ New York) of neighborhood schooling quality and manipulation of the playing field.

Closing Thoughts

Before we jump on these reformy bandwagons, and start waiving the white flag of relinquishment and promoting the virtues of sector agnosticism, we need to take a hard look at how this is playing out in our cities. Numerous New Orleans schools were wiped out by a natural disaster, displacing large shares of the lowest income residents to Houston (and elsewhere), many of whom have not been able to return in part because the market based model of New Orleans has chosen not to serve their former, blighted neighborhoods.  This was tragic, and the initial occurrence largely beyond policymakers’ control.  The choice to leave children and their families unserved or underserved was a conscious policy decision (or a least a predictable result of the policy response).

Proposed Chicago (and Philadelphia) school closings would appear comparably poised to induce increased demand for charters, which will likely be used as rationale for expanding charters even further and advancing the cycle toward its ultimate end (as if Katrina by design, and more surgically targeted at schools with low test scores and poor minority children). In most U.S. cities, however charter market shares remain modest, and publicly subsidized private school enrollment even smaller, providing an opportunity to pause and rethink current strategies.

So then, what do we do about all of this? First, reformers and non-reformers alike (and anti-reformers too!) need to step back from these oversimplified talking points and buzz phrases which so illustrate the worst of intellectually lazy, undisciplined, under-informed policy development. I don’t mean to be a hypercritical, ivory tower (actually, public university 1960s era building basement) academic … okay… yeah… that is what I mean to be here. Why? Because it matters! Exploring and understanding these tradeoffs matters. Ignoring them is reckless.


[1] Elite charter schools commonly spend 30 to 50% more than district schools in the same city while often serving much less needy students, and independent private day schools spend nearly double the average of public districts (1.96x) in their same labor market while serving far more advantaged populations.

Supplementary Tables

Governance Issues in LEA and Charter Schooling


Governance issues in Voucher and Tuition Tax Credit Programs


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Bruce D. Baker

Bruce D. Baker is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, where he teaches courses in school finance policy and district business management. His recent research focuses on state aid allocation policies and practices, with particular attention to the equity and adequacy of...